I’m not that old. But I’m old enough to remember fall nights listening to the Cleveland Indians on the radio, taking in a full nine-inning baseball game while lying flat on my back next to our console stereo in the living room, hanging on every pitch from Charlie Nagy or Dennis Martinez.
Today, I struggle to make it through a two-minute video of MLB highlights.
We live in a distracted age. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. If you’re like me, you might notice yourself reaching for your phone as you pull up to a stoplight. Or maybe you instinctively open a second (or third) browser whenever an advertisement pops up on YouTube. Lately, in conversations with friends, I’ve caught myself thinking about something else entirely. When it comes to prayer, my attention seems to stray automatically, following loosely connected data streams toward my tasks for the day, appointments, or even rewinds of unrelated memories.
But of all the relational, functional, and cognitive consequences to living in our distracted age, one sticks out for me: I’m a distracted father.
Parenting in a Technological Age
Here again, I don’t imagine that I’m alone. Because of this, I’m regularly thankful that smartphones weren’t ubiquitous when I first became a dad only 18 years ago. At that time, our young family lived in an apartment in Tennessee without a single screen within our four walls. No TV. No laptop. No tablet or smartphone. All we had was a silver Aiwa stereo—a wedding gift from my aunt and uncle that could pick up a nighttime Indians game on AM 1100, 600 miles away in Cleveland. In the early 2000s, I was amazed by such technology.
Of all the relational, functional, and cognitive consequences to living in our distracted age, one sticks out for me: I’m a distracted father.
Nowadays, our family has upgraded to one television. We’re a fairly slow-adapting and minimalist family on technology. Nevertheless, today we have a plethora of smaller screens in our home with a seemingly endless array of options for content and entertainment. It’s almost impossible not to be distracted. And I believe this does irreparable damage to my ability to be a good father.
That’s not because the things most likely to draw my attention online are uniquely trivial. Every generation has the possibility of distraction. I’m inclined to believe that long-term and repeated participation in trivialities is one factor that adds depth to the dearest of relations. This is why my increasing inability to provide unobstructed attention during life’s less-important moments is of concern. To focus. To listen. To respond. To be present. The inability to do these simple acts is what makes our distracted age so dangerous and dehumanizing.
And it affects our children directly.
My ‘Distracted’ Father
Lately, I’ve thought about this in relation to the way we eulogize our fathers. What we say about people when they die reveals much about what we truly value. This is striking, particularly when we observe that the greatest compliment you can give to a deceased father isn’t to list all his accomplishments, but to remember he was present. “He came to all my games.” “He taught me how to fish.” “He cared.”
There are multiple ways to interact with children in the ordinary and mundane. You can do so face-to-face and side-by-side. But you also teach through what takes you away.
As I consider the qualities of my father, I’m not sure that what I appreciate most was that he gave me undivided attention. My father—the pastor of a small church—was incredibly distracted. But I use that term positively. What I mean is that he was constantly visiting the hospital, sometimes taking me along. He was a regular at our neighborhood nursing home. He taught three or four times a week at our church, spending many hours in private study. As the pastor of a small congregation, he sometimes had to pick up a second job in the evenings. He also maintained our church building and parsonage property, patching the roof, cutting the grass, and plunging the toilets—and letting me help with each.
Looking back, I can see how my father was present in some moments, but absent in many. But that makes sense. The gospel by nature divides our loyalties and reorients our priorities. As I think about it, my dad’s many so-called distractions didn’t make him any less of a father. Nor did they mean he loved me less.
My dad’s many so-called distractions didn’t make him any less of a father. Nor did they mean he loved me less.
One time—I’ll never forget—I ran up the stairs of our split-level home and barged into my parents’ bedroom. If I wanted to, having gathered enough speed, I could slide across their maple floors on my socked feet. But whatever my reason for hurrying upstairs that evening quickly came to a halt. Because when I threw open the door, I caught a glimpse of my dad, knees bent and head down over his bed. Then I suddenly remembered: It’s Saturday night.
Saturday nights, the night most of my friends were having fun as a family, my dad was alone in a quiet room, praying and preparing for Sunday. The rest of us always had to find something else to do. He was unavailable.
Our ‘Distracted’ Savior
One of the beautiful paradoxes of Jesus is that he was singularly focused but easily pulled in multiple directions. He had time for children. He took note of poor widows. With Jesus, a stray touch in a crowd or a cry from the roadside wouldn’t go unnoticed. His attention was magnetized to need.
Yet Jesus was also extremely focused. When it was time to pray, he withdrew to a solitary place. When it was time to preach, he pursued the crowds. When it was time to die, he set his face toward Jerusalem. In all these things, Jesus was unswervingly committed to his Father’s will.
But that singular commitment often meant he was unaffected by people’s whims, unfazed by the demands of disciples, even unmoved by his family’s requests. To them, Jesus must have seemed constantly distracted.
I want to draw my children into that variegated attentiveness, having their hearts open to a God and a world that’s bigger than themselves.
This is a way of being in the world that I want to cultivate for the sake of my children. To be highly attentive, yet easily “distracted”—in all the right ways. Not so much by Instagram, Netflix, or the news. But to be attracted to life with God and his church, to community and hospitality, to the sick and suffering, to evangelism and prayer. And I want to draw my children into that variegated attentiveness, having their hearts open to a God and a world that’s bigger than themselves.
Our Attention Disciples Our Children
One of the ways we shape our kids is by giving them an abiding sense of their value and worth in providing them our sincere and focused attention, giving time in quantity and quality. But we also demonstrate Christlike love and model virtue before our children through the things that pull us away from them, by what grabs our hearts and holds our gaze.
My father did both—even if it meant he wasn’t always focused on me. And, looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.